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How Teardrop Lounge Tried to Create the Safest Indoor Bar in Portland

The venerable cocktail bar has implemented all manner of new precautions to keep its guests safe and happy

Teardrop Lounge’s bar with plexiglass shield
The plexiglass-clad bar at Teardrop Lounge
Teardrop Lounge/Official

Teardrop Lounge opened in the Pearl District in 2007, with owner and bartender Daniel Shoemaker helping to pioneer Portland’s burgeoning, now prolific, craft cocktail scene. Now, 13 years later, the bar has reopened after months closed due to the pandemic, and Shoemaker and his crew are once again looking to demonstrate how bars can operate today. This time, he’s working closely with medical professionals to keep his visitors and workers safe while sacrificing as little of the bar’s hospitality as possible.

The chic, urban cocktail lounge isn’t the most obvious candidate for a pandemic-era bar—it’s primarily known for being an intimate and busy spot with bartenders guiding visitors through a list of complex cocktails, often over the sounds of loud music. Rather than opting for outdoor seating, Shoemaker looked long term. “We’ve never had outdoor seating,” he says. “Outdoor seating felt like a red herring, because the industry is going to fall off the cliff [in winter]. I wanted to build a parachute and jump off the cliff.”

To do so, he reached out to a friend, Dr. Andy Barnett, a medical director and assistant professor at OHSU, who co-founded Back to Work Experts, a consultant team of eminent medical professionals working with business owners to implement safety protocols. The Teardrop team built a plexiglass window around the entire bar and overhauled their HVAC system to bring in roughly triple the amount of outside air and upgraded to “the most restrictive filtration possible.” Like other other bars, Teardrop’s masked servers and bartenders remain more than six feet from customers, using “dead drop” tables spaced between themselves and guests to deliver drinks and clear empty glasses. The team designed pathways around the bars for workers to move while maintaining social distancing, and implemented rigorous education procedures that include vocal training for the staff to better communicate without spreading more aerosols through yelling.

The structure of service has also changed: staggered reservations minimize contact between visitors, and hosts greet customers at the door with temperature checks and health questionaries before directing them to their seats. The entire staff is split into two teams that work at different times, so if one employee does test positive for COVID-19, the other half of the staff would have had no contact with them. The majority of guests have reservations, and Shoemaker wants to get that number to 100 percent, especially as reservations can aid in contact tracing if anyone is reported sick. The bar used to seat a few hundred over the course of the night — now, with distancing and limited hours, that’s more like 60 to 75 possible in one evening.

“My goal from the beginning was to implement 100 percent of their recommendations, every step of the way,” Shoemaker says of his consultants. “As they come at it from the vantage point of medicine, the most difficult path we have is to tread is how to offer some measure of hospitality and human warmth.”

To help on that path, some things have remained unchanged. For one, Teardrop has maintained its entire staff from before the pandemic. It also kept its robust menu of cocktails, rather than stripping it down like many other bars have had to do. Even the prices remain the same, at a time when a much lower volume of sales means profit margins are that much more crucial for survival. “I was actually inclined to lower prices,” says Shoemaker. “The staff fought me on that, so we kept them the same.”

Shoemaker readily admits that a large portion of his ability to do all of this comes from being so well established with 13 years of revenue and dedicated regulars. “We’ve been sustainable, we have reserves where newer bars don’t,” he says. He also cites having “the greatest landlord on the planet,” who aided with reconstruction and worked closely to keep Teardrop up and running. “The only way people will get through is if landlords support and assist,” he says.

With all the procedures in place, Shoemaker admits that it might alienate some. For him, though, it’s a small price to pay for keeping his customers feeling safe, comfortable, and taken care of. “ We don’t want people that are not taking it seriously,” he says. “We’re taking it seriously for everyone’s benefit. We’re building it for a small, intimate experience that’s a safe haven.”